Investigation: What went wrong at West Newton?

The West Newton exploratory petroleum well in East Yorkshire made national headlines last September when neighbours complained about a foul smell coming from the site.

But an investigation reveals this was just one of a series of problems facing West Newton over the summer and early autumn of 2014.

We discovered that the site and its operator, Rathlin Energy breached environmental permit conditions eight times in three months.

The company

  • Experienced equipment problems
  • Faced criticism for record-keeping and management systems
  • Is being investigated for safe working practices by the Health and Safety Executive
  • Failed to meet deadlines for actions required by the Environment Agency
  • Felt “besieged” by what it called false allegations and questioned whether some complaints were true analysed email correspondence between the site and the Environment Agency, released under a Freedom of Information request. We also examined documents from the Health and Safety Executive, as well as the Compliance Assessment Reports (CAR forms), compiled by the Environment Agency following inspections at West Newton.

The findings show how Rathlin Energy reacted to problems and give a rare insight into the management of an onshore drilling site. The company has responded to the findings and you can read the full statement here. The response begins:

As with most new regulation or permit requirements there is a settling in period where both regulators and operators need to become familiar with any new permits and their suitability for operations.

Additionally, in the case of exploratory oil and gas drilling and testing operations, there are by the specific nature of these exploratory operations a number of unknowns, ranging from the actual geology to formation pressures and formation fluids or gas composition.

In the case of the testing programme at Rathlin’s West Newton well, some of these unknowns gave rise to unanticipated on site operational challenges. These included odour issues associated with the formation gas discovered and the operation of the flare.

The site

West Newton

The West Newton site in Holderness, north of Hull, has a conventional exploratory hydrocarbon well, known as West Newton A. Rathlin Energy has said it has not used hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and does not intend to. During the summer and autumn of 2014, the well was being tested and it is now suspended.

There was opposition to the testing programme at West Newton A, though not on the scale seen at Crawberry Hill, near Walkington, Rathlin’s other site in East Yorkshire, where there was a permanent camp for about six months.

At West Newton, a man who described himself as an environmental monitor lived alongside the fence during the testing programme. Some local people visited regularly but demonstrations were infrequent.

Rathlin is now applying for planning permission for a second exploratory well in the West Newton neighbourhood.

The smell

The site first came to national attention when people living nearby complained about a bad smell. The first complaint to the Environment Agency, on 9th September 2014, described a “huge release of gas” and a “strong household gas smell in the area”.

The following day, the Environment Agency visited West Newton and recorded on the CAR form: “distinct odour” 50m from the site and “extremely strong hydrocarbon type odour present on site immediately downwind of flare stack”. The report concluded: “The activities are giving rise to pollution outside the site due to odour”.

A Rathlin statement a few days later described the odour as “slight”, “very localised” and “intermittent”.

The symptoms

On 12th September, one person told the Environment Agency the smell was “affecting the eyes and throat”. On 14th September, a complainant said the smell left a metal taste in their mouth, was “very acrid”, and “they can’t stop coughing and their lungs hurt”. On the 18th September, a complainant described the smell as “a cross between rotten eggs and gas”, which nearly made them sick.

Between mid-September and mid-October, the Environment Agency and Rathlin exchanged a series of emails about the smell problem. The Environment Agency has removed the names from the emails but the signature line suggests that many of those from Rathlin were written on the company’s behalf by the contracting company, Petroleum Safety Services.

One email from the site to the Environment Agency said the effects reported by residents were “of serious concern”. But it added that staff on site, “who are closest to the possible source of the odour, have not reported any such health effects” (15.09hrs, 15th September 2014).

Later that day the company emailed the Environment Agency again. It repeated that it took the complaints extremely seriously but added: “At no point has any personnel on site reported symptoms of eye irritations throat irritations, coughing or lungs hurting. They are the closest people to the source of the odour and, as such, exposed to the highest concentrations” (18.26hrs).

Another cause?

The following day, an email on Rathlin’s behalf accepted there was a smell coming from the site but said the company’s gas management specialist did not believe this represented a risk to health. The email suggested the symptoms experienced by residents may have another cause. The writer was “concerned that the health effects stated by the complainants may not be a consequence of the odour coming from the site” (09.27hrs, 16th September 2014).

Another email later that day said: “Rathlin Energy is conscious that an assumption that the health effects are a result of the unburnt gas from the West Newton wellsite could in fact mask a more serious and more local environmental or health and safety issue that is not related to our operations” (11.54hrs).

It went on to add that the complaints were having “a serious bearing” on the company, in terms of its duty of care to staff, contractors and neighbours.

Accuracy of complaints

Rathlin’s emails raised doubts about the accuracy of the complaints. One email asked: “For the wellbeing of the complainants, please can you confirm what, if anything the EA is doing independent of Rathlin Energy to substantiate the complaints raised by the residents of the properties in respect of health effects” (9.27hrs, 16th September 2014).

Another asked: “Whether anything has been done by the EA or any other agency to determine whether these symptoms are real and, if so, what has caused the symptoms” (11.54hrs, 16th September 2014).

This email continued: “Rathlin Energy has also been besieged with false allegations about its operations, both directly by protestors and by those who they have co-opted locally as well as through the media”.

On 19th September, Rathlin issued a statement saying: “The odour was not hazardous to health. We have identified the problem, monitored and assessed it and we have put measures in place to control it”.

Despite this, complaints about smells from West Newton continued until 24th October, according to the Environment Agency. Altogether, there were at least 15 complaints.

On 25th September, a complaint described the smell as “very, very pungent” and “horrendous”. The company responded to the Environment Agency: “I was expecting you to receive a complaint irrespective of whether there was any odours or not”. It continued: “There was at no time any reoccurrence of the odour emitted last week. The only detectable odour was from the combustion of gases during the incineration process and these were intermittent” (13.30hrs).

On 6th October another complaint alleged staff left the site because of the smell. Rathlin denied this in an email to the Environment Agency, suggesting the complaint was from a member of the protester group, resident outside the well site and that they sought “to substantiate their complaint by lies”. The email said “there was an [sic] minor oilfield odour from the operation, it was not significant and certainly not to the level had had been experience [sic] during the flaring operation” (08.29hrs).

Dealing with the smell

On 10th September, the Environment Agency recorded the smell as a breach of the site’s environmental permit condition 3.3.1 on odour. This states: “Emissions from the activities shall be free from odour at levels likely to cause pollution outside the site, as perceived by an authorised office of the Environment Agency”. The Environment Agency also recorded a breach of condition 1.1.1 which requires the operator to work “in accordance with a written management system which identifies and minimises risks of pollution”.

CAR forms make it clear that any breach of a permit condition is an offence. Breaches are classified from 1-4, where 1 is the most serious.

The Environment Agency classified both these breaches as category 3. It told us: “C3 breaches have the potential to cause harm and we follow our enforcement policy”. The Environment Agency said a one-off score of 3 would be accompanied by a warning letter or site warning but no further action. Multiple C3s in one visit, or continued C3 breaches for the same condition would lead to ramping up of enforcement action that could result in formal cautions or prosecutions. (See More breaches, below).

The Environment Agency identified several possible sources of the smell, including brine storage tanks and the flare, when gases from the well were not burnt completely, known as cold venting. (For more on this see Flare temperatures and Pressure problems, below)

The Environment Agency required Rathlin Energy to:

  • Carry out sampling and analysis of any gas releases from a brine storage tank and the flare
  • Submit an odour management plan, identifying the source of the smell and measures to minimise the risk of pollution

The deadline for both actions was 19th September.

Deadlines and deficiencies

Rathlin missed the deadline to produce the odour management plan by one working day and submitted it on 22nd September.

The following day, Environment Agency approved the proposal for burning gas from the well and gave interim approval to another section. But the rest of the plan, involving at least six sections, was described as “deficient” and was not approved. The Environment Agency required Rathlin to amend measures to monitor the smell, deal with potential sources of the smell and carry out sampling.

Among the points it criticised was the method used to sample volatile organic compounds (VOCs) at the site. The Environment Agency said: “It is not known how the sample was taken, how long the time was between sampling and analysing, what the gas temperature was at sampling and during transport, and it is therefore difficult to determine how representative this sample is”.

Rathlin resubmitted the plan on 26th September but acknowledged that some information was still missing. On 16th October, the Environment Agency asked again for improvements. Rathlin sent the revised version on 17th October, four weeks after the deadline and more than five weeks after the smell was first reported.

The odour management plan revealed that the source of the smell was a combination of Butane, Pentanes, Benzene, Hexanes and Heptane. The plan described them as Natural Gas Liquids and said they “are naturally occurring within the gas and formation fluid” of the well. In this case, they were in gaseous state and were not being incinerated by the flare because the pressure was too low.

Other delays

The Environment Agency also asked Rathlin for air dispersion modelling to establish how far the gas had travelled from the well.

This was first mentioned in an email on 23rd September. The Environment Agency reminded Rathlin in emails on the 1st, 3rd and 9th October. An internal Rathlin email on 6th October, copied to the Environment Agency, said: “The air dispersion assessment is a priority task, which we need to close out as soon as possible” (10.36hrs).

Rathlin submitted the modelling report on 10th October. It concluded that the release of unburned gases from the flare (cold venting) had an insignificant effect on air quality at houses nearest the site. On 23rd October, the Environment Agency asked Rathlin’s contractor, ESG, to send more material and ensure it was in an electronic format.

More breaches

The breaches of permit conditions on 10th September were not the first or the last during the summer and autumn last year. The CAR forms showed that the Environment Agency recorded breaches on visits on 3rd July, 28th August, and 24th September.

On 3rd July, the Environment Agency recorded one breach for failing to keep records of both a site operation and inspections of a piece of equipment.

Another breach on the same date concerned an out-of-date emergency plan. The CAR form said: “The site emergency plan needs to be updated following the deployment of well testing equipment to site. The hard copy emergency plan in the grab box must be the most up to date revision so the correct information is available. Access to an electronic copy of the plan cannot be relied upon in an emergency”.

Both breaches were classified as C4, the least serious level. However, the Environment Agency told us: “We record all non-compliance regardless of regime or impact. Repeated C4 breaches would lead to an escalation of enforcement if the company was not rectifying the issue or demonstrating that the permit condition was unnecessary.

We asked the Environment Agency how common were breaches of conditions on record keeping and management systems. It said: “Record keeping, and particularly the efficient use of a suitable environmental management system is good in this sector and breaches of these conditions are rare. Where a management control is missing or has not been followed then we will record the non-compliance against the permit’s management system condition”.

At the same visit, the Environment Agency observed that West Newton relied on security guards to report leaking fluids and odours when technical staff were not on site. But there was no procedure or check sheet to give the guards instructions on what to look for and what to do.

On 28th August, West Newton breached two more general management conditions. The least serious, a C4 breach, concerned the training of security guards to report leaking fluids and odours. The CAR form indicates that there had been training but there was no record of which security guards had been trained.

Hazardous materials

The other breach, classified as the more serious C3, concerned an inventory of hazardous materials. The Environment Agency recorded: “The well site supervisor was able to access an inventory document via an email on his mobile phone. Due to poor IT links at the site it took 15 minutes to forward the email to an onsite laptop and print out the inventory. The inventory did not have a date or version number and listed some materials that have been removed from the site”. Other substances were onsite but their names and purpose were not listed on the chemical inventory.

On the same visit, the Environment Agency also recorded that it was not possible to inspect all the contents of the store of materials covered by COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) regulations. A large number of empty plastic bags contaminated with product residue were in the store awaiting disposal, the Environment Agency said.


Two other breaches, both C4, were recorded on 24th September. One dealt with a tank of fluid designed to remove smells from the vent of a waste container.

The CAR report recorded: “At the time of the audit no one present was aware what fluid was in the tank or if any ongoing monitoring of it was carried out to determine if it was effective or fully reacted and requiring replacement”.

The other breach concerned records of the flare temperature. The CAR report said there was a log sheet for half-hourly records of the temperature but the log sheet was not part of Rathlin’s Environmental Management System. The Environment Agency gave Rathlin three days to establish an EMS procedure which required the flare temperature to be logged every 30 minutes. It also required training of flare operators.

Flare temperatures

The Environment Agency visited again on 30th September. We asked for the CAR forms for this inspection but the Environment Agency was unable to provide them so we don’t know what, if any, actions were required.

However, in an email on 1st October, the Environment Agency wrote to Rathlin: “I would like to speak to you about the importance of completing the actions on the CAR forms” (16.59hrs).

It continued: “Flare temperature monitoring and logging is important because it forms part of the information to demonstrate that the flare is operating within the required temperature range to achieve the modelled combustion efficiency. The procedure to require this should have been in place before flaring started.

By this stage, it was more than a month since the flare was first used. In the same email, the Environment Agency also asked Rathlin to respond to actions required but still outstanding following the inspection on 28th August. These included making the hazardous materials inventory a controlled document in the EMS and confirming the purpose of substances on site that had been left off the chemicals inventory.

Rathlin responded later that day and acknowledged that “at the time of the visit there was no procedure within Rathlin Energy EMS to ensure that the recording of the flare stack temperature was to be undertaken”. It said the required documents had been produced “to fulfil the Environment Agency’s requirements” (17.11hrs).

But on 7th October, the Environment Agency wrote again about the flare temperature recording: “I need to be sure that everyone involved with flare temperature monitoring has the same understanding” (15.29hrs).

The Environment Agency required that the temperature was logged every time the flare was used, not just when it was running for more than 30 minutes. Rathlin was instructed to amend the procedure to make this clear and communicate it to the flare operators.

Operating the flare

The emails and CAR forms confirm there were problems operating the flare at West Newton. Rathlin’s statement said the original agreement it had with the Environment Agency for flaring was later overturned and it had to find a substitute flare.

Flaring started at West Newton on 28th August 2014 (although Rathlin told the Environment Agency incorrectly in one email that it was 29th September). The inspection on that date recorded “very strong smell of gas/H2S in car park on the North boundary of the site”. The CAR report said gas levels were normal for oxygen, methane and hydrogen sulphide and the Environment Agency took no action.

An email from the site on 18th September said the pressure of gas in the well was below the operation limit of the flare unit. The email continued “As you are aware this is the first time we have used an enclosed flare unit of this type” (17.18hrs).

The odour management plan explained why the natural gas liquids were causing problems: “Ordinarily these Natural Gas Liquids would be incinerated at the point of flare, however, at low flow rate pressure, they are not being incinerated and their respective odours are being emitted”. (22/9/14)

The plan acknowledged that this release of gas, known as cold venting, was not a suitable method of disposing of the gas. And the following day the Environment Agency was very clear in its response: “No cold venting of any gas from the well must take place” (17.11hrs, 23/9/14).

We asked the Environment Agency about its policy on cold venting. It replied: “We require operators to capture as much methane as possible and would not allow cold venting other than where there was a health and safety risk”.

What Rathlin said

A presentation in November by Rathlin to local people said allegations that the company had breached its “environmental obligations” “health and safety obligations” or “vented gas unsafely and illegally” were all “completely untrue”. The company said: “We have remained consistently compliant with all regulations and conditions of consent in everything that we have done”.

Last night Rathlin said: “As a direct consequence of the learnings from the West Newton well the EA has provided Rathlin with a permit variation in respect of the proposed Crawberry Hill testing operations which requires Rathlin to review and provide a new flaring solution as well as a new odour management plan prior to any works commencing at Crawberry Hill. The Environment Agency has itself approached a third party organisation to undertake a review of what BAT [Best Available Techniques] is for flaring operations. The intent of the exercise is to create a better regulatory environment, but it does require both regulators and industry to adapt rapidly while procedures evolve and has the potential to lead to misunderstandings/ oversights”.

Other equipment problems

In June 2014, pipework snapped in a groundwater monitoring borehole and it had to be redrilled. Also in June, the Environment Agency reported that a fuel bowser had a drainage outlet that did not meet regulations.

On 9th August Rathlin told the Health and Safety Executive about the unplanned closure of a blowout preventer. The HSE was also informed about ignition of gas during the installation of the well head. No-one was injured in this incident.

Health and Safety Executive investigation

The HSE has been investigating a complaint made in autumn 2014 that an employee at West Newton was working at height without necessary equipment. We understand the investigation is continuing and the HSE nor Rathlin will not provide more information until it is resolved.

Rathlin’s response

Rathlin Energy said it consistently “took on board the EA’s reports and sought to address the issues the EA had flagged up”.

It said: “As with any introduction of regulation, industry and regulators need to work together to identify suitable operational procedures that can be permitted to achieve the operational objectives while minimising any impact on personnel, stakeholder or the environment”.

“Rathlin seeks to consistently improve operations and operating procedures and values the input of our regulatory agencies in also seeking continuous improvement”.

Rathlin’s full response

[Updated on 9/2/15 to make clear that the HSE investigation is ongoing and on 12/2/15 to correct COSHH definition to Control of Substances Hazardous to Health from Chemicals or Substances Hazardous to Health]

11 replies »

  1. Just a slight correction for you. COSHH stands for Control Of Substances Hazardous to Health, not chemicals or substances hazardous to health.

    • Thanks very much for that. I’m grateful for you spotting it – I will correct in the article. Best wishes, Ruth

  2. “….the source of the smell was a combination of Butane, Pentanes, Benzene, Hexanes and Heptane”

    Benzene is an aromatic hydrocarbon (C6) and it is carcinogenic. In a chemistry lab you only use it in a fume cupboard. No one should be breathing this, even in dilute amounts. The other hydrocarbons in the list (butane C4 to heptane C7)are liquids at ordinary temperatures (including the smallest one, butane). The implication is that the temperature of the fluids coming up is higher than the boiling point of heptane (98C), so it is not “cold” venting in the ordinary sense of the word, only in a relative sense.

  3. I walked through clouds of it at Horse Hill, a simple gas detector was going crazy. I have been getting chest pains on and off ever since… This industry is pure insanity.

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